Fred Rogers seems to be on everyone’s mind these days – and rightly so. A year or so ago there was the award-winning documentary on his life “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” which Faith and I found so enriching and enjoyable. Certainly Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Rogers in the current film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” – praised by one reviewer as “celebrating the virtues of patient listening, gentleness and honest expression of feeling” is on our “must see” films list. I have my own happy memory of spending time with Rogers, many decades ago, at a luncheon hosted by the Shriver family and Special Olympics.
To add to our knowledge of this good man, Abrams Press has just published “The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers” by Maxwell King. One story in the book has a special meaning for us at Christmastime – a meaning drawn out by D.L. Maxwell in a recent column in the Washington Post. She sees the anecdote not only as revealing Rogers central message that each child is unique and worthy of dignity and love but as a rejection of holiday consumerism as well.
D.L. Maxwell is a free lance writer who lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two small children. Her thoughtful essays on race relations, Theology, refugees and other topics have earned numerous awards and accolades. She describes herself in a way that is appropriate for this blog – as “trying very hard to be a good neighbor.” On November 22, 2019 she writes:
We all know Fred Rogers was a saint. He is solidified in our collective cultural imagination: frozen in a cardigan and sneakers, his supernatural attunement to the emotional traumas of childhood, slow-talking puppets and subjects both whimsical and deep. We celebrate the Presbyterian minister for his kindness, when instead during his time he was known as a rather intense man with rigid standards and a bit of a social oddball.
“Fred was very controversial for most of his career,” said Basil Cox, the executive director of Rogers’s nonprofit, according to the biography “The Good Neighbor” by Maxwell King. “There were always a significant number of people who just didn’t believe him . . . thought it was an act. For the general world, he was the host of a kiddie television show, and that was it.”
….King’s biography includes a story that epitomizes Rogers’s inner motivation. Smack in the middle of when his show became a modest success on PBS in the early 1970s, Hallmark asked Rogers to collaborate in decorating its flagship store in midtown Manhattan for Christmastime.
Rogers and his friend and colleague Eliot Daley traveled from Pittsburgh to New York to check out the scene. Other celebrities and influencers had created garishly festive and over-the-top displays, but Rogers went a different route.
He went back to his home in Pittsburgh and concocted a design plan. His window display would be this: a Norfolk Island pine tree, the height of a three- or four-foot-tall child. No ornaments or decorations, just a simple green tree, planted in a clear glass Lucite cube so that onlookers could see the roots of the tree. And in front of it there was to be a plaque that simply said: “I like you just the way you are.”
To its credit, Hallmark went with Fred’s plan. His friend Daley remembers going to New York City to see the simple, yet powerful vision come to life — in the midst of all of the tinsel and lights, there was that little tree, all alone. He said it was perfect, and that he has no idea whether Rogers ever went to the city to see it on display.
I think about that little tree, and how differently the mind of a pastor and educator and psychologist (for Rogers was all three) works from those of marketers. At first blush it seems beautiful, because it is: centered on a child, a tree just their height, reinforcing the message Rogers most desperately wanted his young neighbors to hear. Working to combat shame, isolation, trauma; working to help build resilience in the lives of kids he could never hope to reach one by one. By creating a tree reminiscent of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” he reminds us that what is small is good, recognizing that even little trees need good roots to grow tall and strong.
The small bare tree in the Hallmark store window was a radical gesture designed to expose the hypocrisy of holidays intended to sell products while centering the emotional well-being of children who might catch a glimpse of his message. It was a rejection of holiday consumerism. It was a countercultural art project in a world of companies that exploited nostalgia for profit. And it was the refusal to accept a world that needed children to feel ashamed of themselves to buy more goods. It was typical of Fred Rogers: It was anger and love, all wrapped together, a Christmas gift I will never forget.